Parker Solar probe captures dust trail of asteroid that cause Geminid meteor showers every year

The asteroid's 96,560 km dust trail is made up of dust grains and small rocks that burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.


The Parker Solar Probe’s main objective, since its launch in 2018, is to keep an eye on the Sun and study its corona and solar winds. But it is not restricted to just studying the Sun, as recently the probe captured a never-before-seen site — an image of the Phaethon asteroid’s dust trail.

The asteroid is from the group of Apollo asteroids that brings it extremely close to the Eartha and the Sun. Phaethon, in Greek mythology, is the son of the Sun god Helios.

This asteroid is also the parent body of the Geminids meteor showers that take place every year, in mid-December and is thought to be intensifying every year with 120-160 meteors seen per hour. A parent body of the meteoroid showers is a celestial body from where meteorites originate.

 Parker Solar probe captures dust trail of asteroid that cause Geminid meteor showers every year

Parker Solar Probe's WISPR instruments captured the first-ever view of a dust trail in the orbit of asteroid Phaethon, the faint track between the two red arrows. This dust trail creates the Geminids meteor shower, visible each December. Image credit: Brendan Gallagher/Karl Battams/NRL

The probe captured the first-ever direct view of the 96,560 km dust trail following the asteroid. This trail, made up of dust grains, small rocks and other space debris, comes in contact with the Earth’s atmosphere and burns upon impact. It is also the reason why we see the meteoroid showers or shooting stars on Earth — they are just small rocks burning.

While scientists have always known that Phaethon is the parent body that causes the showers, they have never been able to see the dust trail.

The extremely sensitive Hubble telescope had also been employed to look at the asteroid but came up empty.

A composite of the Geminid meteor shower. Image credit: APOD/ Juan Carlos Casado

A composite of the Geminid meteor shower. Image credit: APOD/ Juan Carlos Casado

"We calculate a mass on the order of a billion tons for the entire trail, which is not as much as we’d expect for the Geminids, but much more than Phaethon produces near the Sun," said Karl Battams, a space scientist at the US Naval Research Lab in Washington DC, said in a statement. "This implies that WISPR is only seeing a portion of the Geminid stream – not the entire thing – but it’s a portion that no one had ever seen or even knew was there, so that’s very exciting!” Astronomers will be able to study the asteroid, its dust trail and the showers in even more detail with Parker's new image. They might even be able to explain how the asteroid came to be.

WISPR stands for Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe which is an imaging instrument of the probe and what it used to capture the asteroid's dust trail.

Welcome to Tech2 Innovate, India’s most definitive youth festival celebrating innovation is being held at GMR Grounds, Aerocity Phase 2, on 14th and 15th February 2020. Come and experience an amalgamation of tech, gadgets, automobiles, music, technology, and pop culture along with the who’s who of the online world. Book your tickets now.